In a highly unusual case, an accused drug trafficker has walked free because of a lack of sheriffs in Victoria – a problem lawyers and union heads say has hit a crisis point.

Defence lawyer Michael Munro says the shortage of courthouse sheriffs is the worst he’s seen in the capital city in 26 years of practice.

“Every couple of years we run into this same situation,” said Munro. “It’s been occurring for the last number of weeks or months in Provincial and Supreme Court and the judges are sick and tired of it.”

Munro was set to represent a man charged with possession of cocaine for the purposes of trafficking three days ago, when the startling incident occurred.

“Due to a lack of court staff, specifically sheriffs, they couldn’t get my client into the courtroom,” he said. “There we were, ready to go. He was in a sheriff’s cell downstairs, and there were no sheriffs to bring him into the courtroom.”

He’s one of several lawyers who are speaking up about the sheriff shortage, saying that not having proper staffing at the courthouse risks people’s safety.

“The reality is we’re lucky that nothing worse has happened, because this is the security force for the courthouse,” said defence lawyer Paul Pearson. “The courthouse is a place of high conflict. People’s tempers are up, it’s a dangerous place, and the security force has to be well-funded and fully staffed.”

He added that the sheriff shortage extends to the Lower Mainland as well, and there's a simple solution – the government just needs to hire more sheriffs.

“It’s ridiculous if we can’t properly fund the process of getting someone who’s charged with an offence, just getting them in front of the judge properly. That’s a pretty fundamental requirement in our system of justice,” he said.

But there are underlying reasons the province is having a hard time retaining sheriffs and near the top of that list is money, according to union head Dean Purdy, chair of Correctional and Sheriff Services for the BC Government and Service Employees’ Union.

At a base wage of $57,000 a year, sheriffs are paid less than correctional officers, SkyTrain police, municipal police and Mounties, Purdy said.

“It’s something that’s not going away. Basically as far as sheriffs go, they’re talking one step forward and two steps back,” he said. “Many of the sheriffs that are hired on, because they’re the lowest paid peace officer occupation in B.C. they move on to other higher paying law enforcement jobs.”

The union says the number of sheriffs in Victoria has dropped from 35 a decade ago to 22 this year.

Purdy said he’d like to see the government adjust the market so sheriffs are receiving fair compensation when compared to other peace officers – and are more compelled to stay at their jobs.

“They just can’t compete in this day and age in the Lower Mainland and Victoria, and you can’t really blame them,” he said.

When asked about the shortage, Justice Minister Suzanne Anton told CTV News the department will be hiring and training more sheriffs.

“We’re having no difficulty attracting good recruits. We have very good sheriffs throughout British Columbia and they do a terrific job keeping our courtrooms safe,” said Anton.

She said the number of cases stayed in B.C. for lack of sheriffs is still very low, but that the Justice Institute would expand its number of training classes from one to two to address the problem.

The chief justice of B.C.’s Supreme Court had no comment Monday, but a spokesperson said Justice Christopher Hinkson would speak with both the chief judge of B.C.’s Provincial Court and the chief sheriff about the situation in the coming days.

With a report from CTV Vancouver Island's Robert Buffam